Once exploited by plantation owners and timber barons, the natural bounty of the South Carolina coast has since gained the attention of conservationists and naturalists. Take a look around — you might be surprised at what you find.

Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve

Just a half-mile walk from the northeastern dead-end of East Ashley Avenue on Folly Beach, the county-run heritage preserve with a view of the historic Morris Island lighthouse feels worlds away from the epicenter of the tourist town on Center Street. Your walk to the beach will take you through 80 acres of dunes and maritime forest on land that used to be the site of a Coast Guard station, plus a striking display of graffiti all along the paved walkway that seems to have expanded in recent years. The beach itself features a "boneyard" of bleached wood and ample opportunities for surf fishing. Street parking is free, but there's a $1 admission fee.

Center for Birds of Prey

Out in rural Awendaw, a nonprofit organization runs a world-class rehabilitation shelter for injured eagles, kites, hawks, falcons and other birds of prey. At 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, visitors can take guided tours along walkways past the outdoor cages and then watch flight demonstrations on a spacious lawn. For the truly curious, there's even a "vulture restaurant" viewing area where guests can watch fleets of scavengers descend on the roadkill, leftover scraps and rodent offal that staff members lovingly serve up in the field. Tickets are $18 for adults, $12 for youth age 6-17.

ACE Basin

The pristine and scenic quarter-million-acre basin of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto river deltas has been called South Carolina’s Yellowstone. Nearly 250,000 of those acres have been conserved from development by a landmark private-public effort. Whether you're just driving through or looking for a place to put a kayak in the water, visit acebasin.net ahead of time to scope out some good spots. The Donnelly and Bear Island Wildlife Management areas are great starting points, and you can occasionally spot dolphins from the fishing pier at Steamboat Landing on Edisto Island.

Others of note

Ashley River Blue Trail: The Ashley River wends its way past historic sites including Drayton Hall, Magnolia Gardens and Middleton Place. One of the easiest places to put in a boat is at Jessen Landing in Summerville, which the county is the process of expanding and improving.

Edisto Beach State Park: If you're looking for laid-back beach camping, it doesn't get much better than this. Pitch a tent right behind the dunes and fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves. Visit southcarolinaparks.com to reserve a spot.

Caw Caw Interpretive Center: Whether you're an avid birder or just a person who likes a nice boardwalk stroll through a place rich in history and natural wonder, this county park in Ravenel is a gem. Admission is $2 for adults.

Francis Marion National Forest: This tremendous forest offers camping, kayaking and sightseeing opportunities for those willing to make the trek. The longleaf pine ecosystem is as close an approximation of the pre-Colonial flora and fauna as you're going to find in the Charleston area.

Sewee Center: Just off U.S. Highway 17 in Awendaw, this visitor's center features a short boardwalk through the woods, perfect for an easygoing "hike" with toddlers in tow. If you go on a Saturday, be sure to stop by the fenced-in red wolf preserve at 11:30 a.m. to see "Wolfman Rob" feed a meal to the majestic adult wolves.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens: There are plenty of historic gardens and plantations to visit, but this one boasts a remarkably diverse camellia garden that's definitely worth seeing during peak season in January or February. Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for kids 6-12, free for children under 6.

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